Economics 101 is increasingly shaping people’s behaviour and the structure of organizations. Some research has suggested that the study of Econ 101 tends to encourage self-interested behaviour. The model of the economic agent as a self-interested, rational, autonomous individual utility-maximizer can make “looking out for number one” seem reasonable. In economics classes, it is found that increasingly students were willing to behave opportunistically, on the reasoning that if they don’t take advantage of a situation, someone else will. They are quite unapologetic about it, believing that this is simply the way the world works, and that to do otherwise would be foolish.
In a study where subjects played a one-shot public-goods game, subjects were given differing lengths of time to decide how much money they would contribute to a common pot (versus keeping it for themselves, to everyone else’s detriment). And the faster the decision required, the more cooperative people were. If subjects are told to “carefully consider” their decision, or prime them to value reflection over intuition, they’d be more selfish. The more time to think, the more time for rationalising their actions - what the authors called “calculated greed.”
When facing moral dilemmas of resisting selfishness, our rapid intuitions are good, honed by evolutionary selection for cooperation in small groups. Regulating and formalizing the behaviour (i.e., moving it from the realm of intuition to that of careful thought) can be counterproductive. Nothing shows this better than the study of economics. Beyond attracting self-interested people, studying economics can alter us too, reshaping who we think we are and how we should behave. By encouraging us to expect the worst in others, it brings out the worst in us.
Learning that cooperation is irrational in some situations is making students less cooperative. The economist Robert Frank says, 'We become what we teach.' In experiments using Prisoner's Dilemma games, first year economics students, and students doing disciplines other than economics, overwhelmingly chose to cooperate. But 4th year students in economics tended to not cooperate. Ideological differences between lower-level economics students and upper-level economics students are found to be similar in kind to the measured differences between the ideology of economics students as a whole and their peers.
Upper-level students are even less likely to support egalitarian solutions to distribution problems than lower-level students, suggesting that time spent studying economics does have an indoctrination effect. When comparing students in political economics and business economics, economists found that “the willingness to contribute decreases dramatically for business students.” The late Stanford professor Hal Leavitt lamented that business education distorts students into “critters with lopsided brains, icy hearts, and shrunken souls.”
In Israel, third-year economics majors rated altruistic values – such as helpfulness, honesty and loyalty – as far less important in life than did their freshman equivalents. After taking a course in economic game theory (a study of strategy which assumes individual self-interest in its models), US college students behaved more selfishly, and expected others to do so as well. Economics majors and students who had taken at least three economics courses were more likely than their peers to rate greed as “generally good,” “correct,” and “moral.” In one experiment, the researchers wrote that the “meaning of ‘fairness’… was somewhat alien for this group.”
Exposure to economic words might be enough to inhibit compassion and concern for others, even among experienced executives. In one experiment, the researchers recruited presidents, CEOs, partners, VPs, directors, and managers who supervised an average of 140 employees. They randomly assigned them to unscramble 30 sentences, with either neutral words like [green, tree, was] or economic words like [economy, growing, our]. Then, the executives wrote letters conveying bad news to an employee who was transferred to an undesirable city and disciplining a highly competent employee for being late to meetings because she lacked a car.
Their letters were then rated for compassion. Executives who unscrambled sentences with economic words expressed significantly less compassion. After thinking about economics, executives felt less empathy — and even when they did empathize, they worried that expressing concern and offering help would be inappropriate. In real-world environments, honesty, integrity, intrinsic job satisfaction, and peer recognition are powerful motivators, leading to better results for the financial bottom line than reliance on material incentives alone but economic theory ignores them.
Economists believe that without a penalty or a reward system there is no motivation to commit anonymous acts of altruism. But that this is not how people in Japan behaved after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in 2011 led to a sudden fall in the electricity base-load. When called upon to make a personal sacrifice to avoid brownouts, people willingly sweltered in indoor temperatures of over eighty degrees Fahrenheit. Without duress or reward, people willingly turned down the air-conditioning in their homes even when no one could see them doing so.
So people’s tendency to avoid costs and act only in their self interest - often considered major obstacles to action on climate change — can be overruled by a sufficiently strong appeal to group identity and a visible social norm. The energy crisis in Japan was given visibility with posters and reminders on all media, and even large billboards above major crossings flashed daily rates of power consumption and the likelihood of a blackout. People were actively seeking ways to make a personal contribution, just as they do in wartime when they are brought together in the face of a common enemy.
Along with directly learning about self-interest in the classroom, because selfish people are attracted to economics, students end up surrounded by people who believe in and act on the principle of self-interest. Extensive research shows that when people gather in groups, they develop even more extreme beliefs than where they started. Social psychologists call this group polarization. By spending time with like-minded people, economics students may become convinced that selfishness is widespread and rational ― or at least that giving is rare and foolish.
Experimental research in Germany found that economics students were more likely than other students to be corruptible – willing to give a biased answer – if it led to a personal payout. Research in the US likewise found that economics majors were more approving of their own and others’ self-serving behaviour. Another study found that economics students are less likely to consider a vendor who increases the price of bottled water on a hot day to be acting “unfairly.” Moreover, economics students valued personal achievement and power more than their peers while attributing less importance to social justice and equality.
Our prosocial impulses depend largely on external social cues. When the social cues favour prosociality, behavioural scientists can elicit universal or near-universal unselfishness. Conversely, when subjects are told to act selfishly, believe others would act selfishly, and believe selfishness is not too costly to others, they exhibit near-universal selfishness. Economics promotes the idea that much of the time, cooperation and consideration of other's perspective are irrational and thus are best avoided. Institutions pass on to a new generation the ideas of a minority which they accept as something “given”, “unalterable” and “self-evident”.